Q&A with author Bruce Holsinger @bruceholsinger #killerfest15

Category: Author Post
Photograph by Daniel Addison

Photograph by Daniel Addison

Your name: Bruce Holsinger

Tell us about yourself: I’m a writer, scholar, and unhealthily fanatical soccer dad. In my day job I teach English literature at the University of Virginia.

Tell us about your latest book: The Invention of Fire imagines the beginning of gun violence in the Western world. We begin in London in 1386, with the grim discovery of sixteen bodies in a privy channel. John  Gower, poet, blackmailer, sleuth, quickly learns that the victims have been killed with ‘handgonnes’—a new and potentially transformative weapon on the European battlefield. During my research for this book I discovered that the word ‘handgun’ (in the Middle English form handgonne) comes into our language during the 1380s—and that set me off on exploring the earliest pieces of evidence for portable gunpowder weapons in England.

When did you start writing? I started writing fiction about fifteen years ago—though didn’t show my work to anyone for nearly a decade after that!

Where do you write? On my couch (where I’m sitting right now) and in coffee shops. I am allergic to desks.

Which other authors do you admire? I have eclectic tastes across genre and literary fiction of all varieties, so this is a tough one. It would be easier to answer the question, ‘Which author authors don’t you admire?’, but that would get me into trouble. In the world of crime fiction I’ve become an enormous fan of Tana French, and for historical fiction you can’t beat Geraldine Brooks and Hilary Mantel. At the moment I’m re-reading Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister and loving every page.

Book you wished you’d written? Wolf Hall

Greatest fictional criminal? Lady Macbeth

Greatest crime or criminal from the real world? Jeffrey Dahmer. Has there been a good Jeffrey Dahmer novel???

What scares you? Writing deadlines

Are you ever disturbed by your own imagination? Not often, no no, not often at all…though sometimes when I’m writing a creepy scene late at night or early in the morning, when the house is quiet and still, as it is right now, I will imagine that I hear a scraping sound on the sidewalk. It moves up the porch stairs, scuffing the wood, and now it’s on the porch, and now there’s a smell, an acrid rotting smell and I don’t quite know why the doorknob is turning and why oh dear what @#@#(*$@!^)

3 crime books you would recommend to EVERYONE:

Do you listen to music when you write? Yes—I like baroque keyboard music, which seems to inspire efficient typing.

Are you on social media? Yes. I have a facebook author page, www.facebook.com/bruceholsingerauthor, and I’m quite active on twitter @bruceholsinger and Goodreads

How can fans connect with you? Either one of the above! I’m always delighted to hear from fans and readers

The story behind… A BURNABLE BOOK, by Bruce Holsinger

Category: News


This week sees the publication of A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger, a stunning debut historical thriller set in the turbulent 14th Century. We’re absolutely delighted to welcome Bruce to the Killer Reads blog today, to talk about the fascinating story behind this epic novel…


Crime, corruption, international conspiracy, deadly prophecies and missing manuscripts, English prostitutes and Italian mercenaries: A Burnable Book is a historical thriller that tells a big story with a lot of moving parts.

While writing the novel I often felt that I was scripting an episode of The Wire—but setting it in medieval England rather than present-day America! At its heart, though, A Burnable Book tells a more intimate story about a real-life friendship, and it was imagining the dark sides of this particular historical friendship that inspired me to begin sketching out the larger tale told in the novel.


John Gower, our deeply flawed protagonist, was an English poet who lived in the late fourteenth century—the age of Richard II, John of Gaunt, and Henry Bolingbroke, whose lives are so vividly recreated in several of William Shakespeare’s history plays. This was also the age of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, and generally regarded as the greatest English writer before the Bard. Despite his prolific career and his featured role in Shakespeare’s Pericles, though, Gower has always suffered by comparison to his more illustrious contemporary. Yet Gower and Chaucer were close and perhaps life-long friends. We know about this friendship from several sources, including a document granting Gower power of attorney during one of Chaucer’s mysterious trips to Italy. They both lived in and around London (Chaucer over Aldgate, Gower across the bridge in Southwark) and must have swapped poetry and discussed their writing on a regular basis.

There are also several fascinating moments in which the two men speak to one another within the lines of their poetry. One of these is an intriguing stanza that comes near the end of Troilus and Criseyde. It begins like this (and I’m modernizing the Middle English):

Oh Moral Gower! This book I direct

To thee, and to thee, philosophical Strode,

To approve, and where there’s need, to correct…

In calling his friend “Moral Gower,” Chaucer portrays his friend as the morally upright fellow that tradition has assumed him to be. This is a view seemingly validated by Gower’s own poetry, which can tend to be rather plodding, severe, and, yes, moralistic. (“Philosophical Strode,” incidentally, is Ralph Strode, a medieval London lawyer who also plays an important role in the novel.)

The protagonist of A Burnable Book is a more…let’s say compromised Gower. We all have at least one difficult friendship, full of petty jealousies and unspoken resentments. One of the guilty pleasures of writing this novel has come in portraying the darker sides of Gower’s character and of his friendship with Chaucer.

The story begins as Chaucer sets Gower on the trail of a lost book of prophecies—a book with explosive implications for the realm, but also for the complicated relationship between these two old friends. As the bigger story plays out in the arena of city politics and international intrigue, Gower must confront the more intimate balance of loyalty and betrayal as it bears on his closest friendship, his family, and his own life.

I suppose all of this explains why I love writing historical fiction—and also teaching it to college students (in my day job I’m an English professor at the University of Virginia). Historical fiction allows you to tell big, sweeping stories about the past, yet forces you to ground these stories in the difficult intricacy of human relationships and rivalries.

No one understood these tensions more deeply than John Gower. As he put it near the end of his greatest work, “I know not how the world is went.”

– Bruce Holsinger


A Burnable Book publishes on Thursday 30th January – order your copy today!

Read an extract now on Scribd

Listen to an extract now on SoundCloud

An interview with Bruce Holsinger – Part I

Category: News


The publication of Bruce Holsinger’s stunning debut novel is now just two days away, and the Killer Reads team are getting extremely excited! Bruce has very kindly taken the time to answer a few of our BURNING questions (sorry, awful pun), for this exclusive Q&A.

Read on to hear about slang of the fourteenth century, five fascinating facts about medieval life and find out what’s in store next for John Gower…


As a scholar of medieval literature, it seems natural that your debut novel is set in the 14th Century. But was this really a no-brainer for you, or did you consider writing a thriller set in the present day?

Actually the first novel I completed (the first “drawer novel”) was a very bad contemporary techno-thriller, though with a medieval background. (A sample sentence: “The mashed potatoes were as white and fluffy as clouds.”) Writing a historical thriller allowed me to draw on my knowledge and love of the medieval world to tell what I hope is an unusual story that could only have taken place in this era. A Burnable Book depends on manuscript culture rather than print culture, on slow travel, on aristocratic politics and London literary culture at a particular moment. But I love reading thrillers and crime novels set in the present day—among my favorite writers are Tana French, Lee Child, Iain Rankin, and the list goes on. I have ambitions to write a contemporary thriller down the road, though for now I’m devoted to the world of late medieval England.


What drew you to the real-life character of John Gower?

Originally I had conceived the book with Geoffrey Chaucer as the progagonist. In the popular imagination the Age of Chaucer is often imagined as a kind of Merry Olde England, with Chaucer himself as the jolly, ribald figure at the center.  But I wanted to tell a different kind of story about Chaucer’s London: a darker story of petty crime and betrayal, murder and conspiracy. Despite what Shakespeare does with him in Pericles, John Gower seemed the ideal narrator for this story.  We know he was a friend of Chaucer’s, and he writes thousands and thousands of lines of moralizing poetry in multiple languages, yet none of it has ever felt quite genuine to me, and there’s a real strain of nihilism in certain of his works. I started to wonder what might be beneath the pious mask of his poetry—hence A Burnable Book.

Another aspect of Gower’s character that makes him such an intriguing protagonist to create is his visual disability. We know that he was blind or nearly so by the early years of Henry IV’s reign, though there are no records of the potential cause of his affliction, which seems to have come on over a number of years. There’s an intriguing hint at the end of his great poem Confessio Amantis that the poet was already suffering from impaired vision at the time he wrote his long Middle English poem: “Myn yhen dymme” (“My eyes dim”). That Gower would live and write for another decade and more following the publication of the Confessio is a testament to the durability and richness of his literary imagination, and I’ve made it an emerging part of his story in A Burnable Book and its sequel.


Do you feel a need to be historically accurate or does this come secondary to the plot? For instance, did you make up any words, and/or imagine any locations in the writing of A Burnable Book? If so, why?

Story and character have to come first, though accuracy has to be part of the story, I suppose. Most if not all writers of historical fiction strive for authenticity in their depictions of past cultures and settings, but I think it’s a mistake to see accuracy and research as constraints rather than inducements to further creativity. The parts of the book that were the most enjoyable to write were those depicting the lives and lingo of London prostitutes of the fourteenth century. One character, Edgar/Eleanor Rykener, was inspired by an archival document that preserves the interrogation at the Guildhall of a male transvestite prostitute working in London and Oxford in the 1390s—and I had a great time playing with the slang and jargon of the fourteenth-century sex trade: maudlyns, swervers, and so on. Some of the words are historically accurate (Chaucer writes in the Cook’s Tale about a Cheapside prostitute “swyvyng for her sustenance”), others are my own invention. The real test in historical fiction, as the history of the genre since Sir Walter Scott shows us, is feasibility: the author has to make up a lot (this is fiction, after all), but it has to possess the air of plausibility in order to convince the reader of its accuracy.


Can you tell us five fascinating facts we didn’t know about medieval life?

1. Medieval people did not believe the world was flat.

2. Medieval physicians would often diagnose illnesses by examining and sometimes even tasting a patient’s urine.

3. Most medieval writing survives on animal skin—parchment and vellum leaves. Some larger books required as many as 700 distinct animals.

4. Sex within marriage was considered an obligatory debt owed by one spouse to the other. The “marriage debt” was an integral part of medieval marriages.

5. Yes, they had forks—but not many of them. Edward I and Piers Gaveston both owned forks for ginger and fruit, and the utensils were prized for a time among English aristocrats.


Will we be seeing more of Gower in the future?

Yes, absolutely. I’m hard at work on the second book in the series, which is set a year following the events narrated in A Burnable Book. No spoilers, but I’ll just tell you that the book begins with the grim discovery of sixteen bodies in the privy channels beneath the streets of London.


A Burnable Book publishes on Thursday 30th January – order your copy today!

Read an extract now on Scribd

Listen to an extract now on SoundCloud